One of my favourite series of the past few years, Stephanie Saulter’s ®evolution series, is concluding next month with the release of its final instalment Regeneration. Saulter’s debut, Gemsigns, blew me away two years ago and earlier this year I was kicking myself for not reading the second book, Binary, sooner. I won’t be making the same mistake with Regeneration, so look for a review for it soon. Meanwhile I wanted to take this opportunity to ask Stephanie some questions about her experiences writing the ®evolution series and what’s next on her docket. I hope you’ll find her answers as interesting as I did. And if you haven’t checked out Stephanie’s books before, you’ve been missing out. Now’s the chance to catch up on Gemsigns and Binary, before Regeneration hits the shelves.
Let’s start with the basics. Who is Stephanie Saulter?
She was born in the city and grew up in the countryside in Jamaica; went to America to triangulate a university degree with extra helpings of life experience; and ended up in the east end of London. She’s ranged across industries and business sectors with great success and gay abandon; her CV makes recruiters tear their hair out. As you may by now suspect, she has never known her place and considers that all to the good. She’s older than she looks and younger than she thinks.
How would you introduce people to your ®Evolution?
It’s set around a hundred years after a neurological pandemic triggered by information technology came close to wiping out the entire human species. Genetic engineering at the embryonic level eventually provided immunity and prevented extinction, but with some babies it was taken further; researchers used excess embryos to create a chattel class of genetically modified humans known as gems, who were essentially owned by the gemtech companies. This continued for generations, until the indenture system was abolished and gems were acknowledged to have at least some of the rights of other humans. Our story starts here.
The first book, Gemsigns, takes place against the backdrop of the upheaval that follows emancipation. A conference is being held in London at which presentations will be made on whether gems should be granted equal status with other humans, and integrated into the rest of society. It’s an issue that has huge social, political, economic and religious implications, and consequently there’s no shortage of propaganda, dogma, blackmail, bribery, hysteria and moral panic. In the second book, Binary, things have calmed down a bit. Integration is progressing, albeit often grudgingly, and the opposition is less likely to turn violent. But there’s still a lot of latent prejudice, and the long-term consequences of what the gemtechs did are starting to become clear. It turns out that the past can’t simply be left behind, but must be reckoned with. By the time we get to Regeneration, the social changes are entrenched and unstoppable. Gem innovation and technology are threatening to overturn the entire political and economic status quo. The establishment is beginning to comprehend just how disruptive these new humans are.
It’s been eight years since Binary, and that was three and a half years after Gemsigns. So Gabriel, who was five years old when we last saw him, has just turned seventeen. The books feature a large and revolving cast of characters whose lives over those dozen years, plus flashbacks to a couple of decades earlier, essentially tell the story of the times they’re living through. Some of them are exceptional people whose actions help drive events; some of them are just regular folk who get caught up in things much bigger than they are.
This is probably akin to asking a parent which is their favourite child, but I’m going to ask anyway. You created a number of gem types in your series and I was wondering which was your favourite or perhaps which was easiest to write about?
I definitely don’t have a favourite, and I don’t think of writing any of the gems – or norms for that matter – as writing a ‘type’; that way lies the mistake (in my view) of treating a character as a collection of peculiarities and not a person. But I will say that the ones whose engineered differences made them particularly challenging to write were Gaela and Herran, because they have been altered in such a way as to perceive the world very differently from the rest of us. Gaela has hyperspectral vision; she can ‘see’ a much wider range of the electromagnetic spectrum than other humans, from ultraviolet to infrared and beyond. Her experience of even the simplest things – walking down the street, making a cup of tea, playing with her children – is going to be unlike anyone else’s. Herran is a neurologically engineered digital savant who can understand and manipulate base code, but as a consequence has lost a great deal of normal human language processing and emotional expression. It puts him pretty far along the autistic spectrum, and has huge consequences for his ability to communicate. He’s immensely intelligent, but his thinking is structured in a very specific and unusual way; I had to develop a ritualised and simplified style of speech that would make sense given his situation. He’s been one of the hardest characters to write, and among the most rewarding.
To trust my subconscious, which has turned out to be far more perceptive, hard working and well organised than I’d realised. That there are particular themes and preoccupations I return to over and over, even when I thought I was planning to do something quite different. That I am obsessive about getting the words right; I’m not someone who can ‘just get it down in rough and fix it later’. For me, poor prose is like a thorn in my foot or something stuck in my teeth; I can’t move on until it’s fixed. And that nothing is more rewarding than a reader who gets what it is I’m trying to do, who believes in my world and my characters and is moved by them.
You’ve said that you think “the best books have a speculative element to them.” (Source) Do you think that in your case this element will always be SFnal or could you envision yourself writing fantasy in the future?
The point I was making is that speculation in literature is much broader than the narrow marketing categories of science fiction, fantasy, horror; it’s present in every book that asks ‘what if?’ and then works through a series of implications and ramifications to arrive at a credible conclusion. What if someone as intelligent, judgemental and spirited as Elizabeth Bennet meets someone as aloof and condescending as Mr Darcy? What if a kid with Asperger’s Syndrome decides to solve a murder mystery? What if a bunch of English schoolboys are cast away on a desert island without adult supervision? I doubt anyone would shelve Pride and Prejudice, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or Lord of the Flies in the SF/F section, but they are speculative works nonetheless. The best books always engage our imaginations, our intellect and our empathy, regardless of genre.
As for me, I’m very slowly and tentatively starting to work on my first post-®Evolution book. I can’t say much about it yet, except that if it turns out to be anything like the idea that’s in my head right now I doubt it’ll be classifiable as either science fiction or fantasy. But it’ll definitely be speculative.
What’s next for you? Any appearances or conventions planned?
I’m going to be at the Nine Worlds Convention in London in August, and at Bristolcon in September. There are a couple of other possibilities for the second half of the year; details will be on my website when I have them. But I really like interacting with readers regardless of venue, so if someone wants to strike up a conversation with me they don’t have to find their way to a con; they can do it via my website, Twitter, Facebook page or Goodreads.
Is there something else you’re passionate about other than writing and books?
Seriously, I have a really broad range of interests. I’m fascinated by the pace of social and cultural change, but also by how desperately some groups cling to the traditions that they feel give them a sense of identity, even if they developed in vastly different times and places and are clearly incongruous in the modern world. I keep a weather eye on politics. I think many of our conventional wisdoms about economics, stability and what makes a healthy society are crumbling away to dust, and I await with interest the alternative theories that will no doubt replace them. And I increasingly feel that we are in danger of seriously undervaluing, and thus undermining, the importance of education and the arts. Knowledge and imagination are the twin pillars of human progress, but I fear that too often they’re regarded as incidental to skills and aspiration.
As a book reviewer, I’m all about the book enabling; I can’t help but want to make people read all the good books out there. But I can always use help. What are your top recommendations of books we should look out for in the coming months?
That’s a really tough one, because I am so behind in my own reading; I’m still trying to catch up with books that came out years ago! And I guess because I’m not a reviewer, I’m not terribly fussed about knowing what’s coming or getting to it right away (I also have no qualms about ignoring something that doesn’t sound as though it would be to my taste, no matter how much of a buzz there is around it). So I’m afraid I can’t give a list of upcoming books; but I can recommend authors. I’m very keen to see what Sofia Samatar, Tom Pollock, Karen Lord and Ann Leckie do next.
Finally, I have to stay true to my roots and ask a librarian question to finish off with: Do you shelve your books alphabetically, by genre or do you have an ingenious system?
I’ve used a number of ingenious systems in the past; they all made it difficult to actually find anything. For a few years I tried to classify by genre, which confirmed for me how much I dislike classification by genre. Now it’s alphabetical by author, which is by far the simplest and throws up wonderful associations and juxtapositions. My favourite shelf may be the one that starts with Vladimir Nabokov, ends with JK Rowling and includes Patrick Ness, Audrey Niffenegger, Michael Ondaatje, Chuck Palahniuk, Sarah Pinborough, Tom Pollock, Terry Pratchett, Marcel Proust, Philip Pullman, Adam Roberts and Philip Roth. If anyone would like a map of my very weird brain that’s it right there.
Bio: Stephanie Saulter writes what she likes to think is literary science fiction. Born in Jamaica, she earned her degree at MIT and spent many more years in America before moving to England in 2003. Her third novel, Regeneration, will be released in the UK in August. It concludes the highly regarded ®Evolution trilogy, which began in 2013 with Gemsigns and continued in 2014 with Binary. Both books are now also available in North America. Stephanie lives in London, blogs unpredictably at stephaniesaulter.com and tweets only slightly more reliably as @scriptopus.